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Archive for June, 2007

The unintended but better story

Wednesday, June 13th, 2007

I write this post on Roy Peters Clark’s Writing Tools blog yesterday, and his post “When Journalists Use Archetypes” reminded me immediately of a time when I had to make the same choice that student did: Do I go with the touching, cute story or the warts and all version?

I took one summer course other than my internship in college. It was feature writing (at 8:30 a.m.!), and it was the summer I was serving as managing editor at the Stater. I liked the class for two reasons:

First, unlike feature writing in the fall or spring, we turned around a story a week instead of a story a month with endless revisions. I have a tendency to grow weary of a story I work on too long, favoring instead a more immediate turn around and revision process. Because the semester was shorter, we pitched the idea to the professor, reported and wrote it that same week. We pitched the next story and worked on both the revision and the new story simultaneously. It was more time consuming each week, but it was a more newspaper-like than feature writing in spring and fall.

That was my second reason for liking the class. I had been a magazine major because I wanted to do these feature stories. It wasn’t until my professor, Mitch McKenney (who was then the deputy metro editor at the Beacon Journal and has since become the features editor), had us read newspaper feature after newspaper feature, many from his own experience where he could elaborate on the reporting and editing processes, that I realized you can do those types of stories at a newspaper. You can do those types of stories better on a beat because you understand the material and the people and the issues that much better. I also saw that you can write interesting features in a non-traditional form or in very few words. Until that class, I had never really been exposed to that. So it was a turning point for me. It was after taking that class that I changed my major from magazine to newspaper (though, obviously by my status as ME at the Stater, I had already established myself in both newspaper and magazine student media, so I was poised to go either way, both with the intent of doing online in the long run).

I pitched the idea of riding around with the ice cream man for my final story. It was an idea stolen from one of the stories we read where the reporter rode for a day with a dog catcher. I also liked the idea of being able to do all — or almost all — of the reporting in one sitting.

It was both one of the most fun and miserable stories I’ve ever done. Fun because the woman was hilarious and you really do hear and see a lot of cute things from the window of the ice cream truck. But miserable because the truck didn’t have air conditioning, and I hadn’t thought to wear light clothes or put on sun block — my legs and arms were sunburnt on half of my body after baking for 12 hours(!) in 97 degree sun. Oh, and then there was the prolonging of the 12 hour day by the truck breaking down half an hour away from the company base. It was, eh hem, an interesting day.

I met the owner and he put me on a truck with the woman with whom I had struck up a conversation outside.

It was the first of many contradictions that I experienced that day. This was an ice cream woman. That followed with many more: before doing this she had managed an adult bookstore, she swore like a sailor (though not around the kids), and she profiled the neighborhoods in the opposite way you would think: lower- to middle-class were better. As she drove through the neighborhoods, she went on about her theory (the upperclass kids were playing video games, their parents were too cheap that’s how they got so much money, etc. and the poorer areas where she did her best business, the parents could spend a dollar and totally make their kids day.) I was able to see this play out as we drove through much more affluent areas and sold not a single popsicle, and then as we drove through “the projects,” she had lines halfway down the road.

When I got home and sat down to write, I was confused. Do I write about the feel-good stuff, the cute kids counting their pennies and stopping at Wal-Mart to buy sugar free popsicles for the nursing home she visited because many of the adults were diabetic yet her boss couldn’t sell enough sugar-free items to stock them? Or, do I write about the more real-life stuff, the empty yards and sidewalks in the affluent areas, the kids who wanted the ninja turtle but could only afford a freeze pop, the other driver invading her “turf” and cutting into her business, the annoying song that must have played 1,000 times, the lack of air conditioning, the truck breaking down, the excessive use of “damn” and the like?

I struggled with that, and then called Mitch the next day to ask for his advice. I had decided to go with the warts and all version, even though it wasn’t what I set out to report or to write. But I wasn’t sure how to treat it when fully half my best quotes included an expletive. He helped me work it out so it wasn’t offensive and it wasn’t sugar coated. It was what it was true to her character and my day in the life of this ice cream truck driver.

Sadly, as it was written for class and it wasn’t of immediate appeal to the Stater audience, it never ran, and I have long since lost the copy I had of it. But it is still one of my favorite stories. I know Mitch really liked it, too, because the last time I saw him at a function last fall, he mentioned it as he introduced me to his boss and he has told me he uses it as an example in his classes.

Something tells me this story wouldn’t have been nearly as memorable if I’d gone with the cliche, ideal of the ice cream man.

Did you read the paper? (A rant)

Monday, June 11th, 2007

I usually don’t rant, as I know they’re unproductive. I especially know this topic of rant will never change and I will just need to deal, but seriously, give me a break.

I just checked my J&C e-mail and saw a forwarded e-mail from a reader to the ME to my editor to me. (Don’t know why the person didn’t cut out the middle men and save us both time.)

I hear a lot from people, when I’m out on assignment, when I’m covering meetings (during meetings from patrons and officials), in my e-mail, my voicemail, even doing man on the street. They all say we are always writing negative stories about (insert your school of choice here, though mostly it’s one H.S. in particular, even though the “officials” involved would tell you we’re not picking on them and are fair).

Usually I’m able to shrug it off by pointing out, often within the same edition, some “positive” story about the schools. And often times, the stories I write aren’t negative. They’re the news. I can’t help it if your school performed poorly on state tests or if there was a major problem there that we covered. I don’t make these things up, I just write about them. And the thing is, I probably write 9 to 10 more stories that are “positive” than “negative.” (I put them in quotes because I actually aim to be neutral, though obviously writing a story about a kid scoring a perfect ACT is more positive than a story about a hit list at a high school.) You just don’t remember them.

But today, for some reason, this comment got under my skin. It was from a reader, who is not even related to this academic team competing for the national title this afternoon. The person complained that, “Why isn’t this team being covered? If they were a sports team or from another local school they would be on the front page!”

I had to re-read and make sure they were talking about the team I thought they were. The team about which I posted a half dozen web updates last Monday when they were competing for a spot at today’s competition? The team about which WE DID run a front page article last Tuesday? (note that we only run three stories on the front page.) The team about which we have a brief in today’s paper telling people to check out jconline today for coverage and reaction from Orlando? Yes, I lined this all up ahead of time with the coach.

And then, the person complained about us not including photos. Well, I’m sorry we didn’t send a photographer to D.C. and Orlando. And I’ve already discussed photos with the coach. And, yes I know the team is being honored this week at the school board meeting, which if you attended many meetings you’d know is actually quite common. I knew before you. It’s on the agenda, and the coach already let me know a bit ago. When the team gets back (they were gone half of last week and half the team was out of town the second half of the week elsewhere), I am planning to do a feature on them.

Usually, I just let comments like this pass without giving a second thought. But maybe it’s just the mood I’m in, but did they even read the paper or Web site? I think the real issue for me is just that this is one of the instances where I did do it right. And people still complain. Ugh.

I just don’t understand what prompted this person to complain. Every thing they say was wrong. I do get some legitimate complaints throughout the semester about us not covering this or that, or giving more coverage to this program here and not so much there. Often times, the reality is I can’t cover things I don’t know about, and some coaches/advisers are just better PR people for their groups. If nobody tells me something is happening until it’s a week past and you’re sending me a whiney e-mail, there really isn’t much I can do at that point. That is part of the reason we’re creating microsites for the schools, so that those things that fall between the cracks now can land somewhere. So as much as it sucks, I can’t possibly cover every single team, club and event at each of the schools here. It’s just me on this beat, and I work as hard as I can. Ten of me couldn’t get it all, and even if we could, we don’t have room in print. Like everything else, we have to decide and allocate our resources — whether its my time or column inches. Thing is, this time, the complaints came even though we allocated in favor of this group. And that set me off.

Six months in the real world

Sunday, June 10th, 2007

I’ve been out of school for six months now.

How do I know? Not by the calendar. I don’t actually own a calendar. No, I had a decidedly more “Welcome to the real world” reminder: My first student loan payment is due.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how your whole life people tell you “wait until you’re in the real world.” I always hated that phrase. When I was in high school, when I was in college, even now, I always wanted to ask what I was living if not my real life. There is no alternate universe. Life is the real world. You only get one shot, and there is no do-over. You don’t get to try door number two if you don’t like door number one. You have to find a new door somewhere along the road.

College is a bit of an incubator though, protecting you from a lot of the realities. My parents were never the “let me pay your rent” type. I’m a stronger person because of it. I’ve always had to pay for what I wanted or needed, whether it was taking my ACTs or AP tests, buying my laptop or my digital camera, putting gas in my car or just buying dinner. I had to work to make the money for it. So it is. Everything I have, I earned. I’m thankful for my parents not prolonging the “real world.”

But still I’ve been catching myself lately thinking “So, this is the real world.” The job I have, the apartment I’m furnishing bit by bit, the car I drive, the loans I have to repay… This is the real world. This is what I’ve been working toward and waiting for. This is as real as it gets. And the scary thing about it is, one thing leads to another and they’re all tied together and interelated.

And six months has passed while I’ve been adjusting. That means I’ve been here in Lafayette for five months. It seems like I started last week and simultaneously like I’ve been doing this forever. Even Abbey’s been here three weeks already.

I guess that’s the part of the real world nobody warns you about. I had expected time to slow down. I thought it just seemed to pass quickly because I was so busy trying to pack too many experiences into too few years during high school and college. But now six months seems like six days. What do I have to show for myself? Next month I’ll be 22, which seems like such an odd age. Twenty-one seems youthful, the world so full of promise and new beginnings. But 22? It’s just the year after 21 and on your way to cheaper car insurance and, several seasons later, on to 30. The sad thing is, I’ll still be paying back those loans long after college seems like weeks instead of months ago.

A stripper’s story — on the front page?

Saturday, June 9th, 2007

Yesterday, one of my fellow reporters asked me if I saw Monday’s Columbus Dispatch. I don’t normally read the Dispatch, favoring the Beacon and the PD for my Ohio news.

She told me to check it out the story about a stripper. So, rather than walk all the way across the newsroom to find the paper, I just did a quick search. The first things I found were a couple letters to the editor condemning the paper. That got my curiousity.

So, when I found the story, I read it.

It took me to about the fifth paragraph to understand why the other reporter wanted me to see this story. Although she took it as offensive, I wouldn’t say it was offensive so much as uncalled for, seriously unnecessary. I mean, and I hate to say it because I do respect the Dispatch, but I don’t think this description has a place in any newspaper:

She twirls her fit, 22-year-old body around gold poles, her breasts enhanced and exposed, so that men will slide dollar bills into the thin, white thong stretched across her slender, tan hips.

There are other similar examples in the story where I cringed at the inclusion of details far from necessary to help me understand her plight.

But one thing I noticed, because I didn’t just read the lede and first few paragraphs like my co-worker, is as I told her, “At least there’s a news peg.” She hadn’t noticed. Probably because this “nut graph” is buried about eight or nine long paragraphs down:

Dunn and other strip-club dancers — often used to hiding what they do from people outside club doors — have made recent headlines for teaming to fight legislation they say would have put them out of jobs.

As originally proposed, the measure would have created a 6-foot “no-touch” bubble around dancers — effectively shutting down strip clubs, some maintained.

The legislation that eventually passed prevents dancers from touching patrons — or patrons from touching them — while the dancers are nude or seminude.

Even the watered-down version, expected to take effect by mid-August, still concerns club owners and dancers, who doubt its constitutionality.

Although they have many questions about the new restrictions, the most important one is this: Will they scare off patrons?

All right. I was at least relieved to see the news peg. But as I continued to read the story — all 1,600+ words of it — I found myself not just cringing at those borderline pornographic details and descriptions, but also at the girl herself. I know women who are strippers. Personally. They are fine mothers and friends. They do their job and it is what it is. So I’m not in anyway condoning the profession. It is a way to make a lot of money for those with the right personality and body type. And, like I said, it is what it is.

But this story, except for the paragraphs I pulled out above, is just the girl’s soap box about how hard her life is, how she’s working for a better life, how she paid for her sister’s braces and bought a house in the suburbs, how she reads inspirational books, how nobody thinks you can do anything if you’re a stripper and how there’s more to it than taking off your clothes. OK. I get it. I get it.

But what I don’t get is why this story ran on the front page of a major U.S. daily? I didn’t see the story in print, but apparently it was front and an entire inside page. Precious real estate.

Maybe I was just annoyed by this because I hold newspaper’s to a higher standard. All week, I’ve been subjected to the torture of seeing Paris Hilton be the top TV news story, and was relieved it wasn’t so in print. But ah las, is the hard knock life of a stripper worth so much space? Especially when the “news” angle is apparently only worth about four of those inches? I don’t know. Obviously, the Dispatch editors thought so.

I think there could have been and, if you were going to do this story and run it where and how long they did, should have been so much more. How many people in Ohio would be affected by this law? How many people work as strippers, as bouncers, as bar tenders, and how many patronize the clubs? What about the legislators. What prompted this law? What do they have to say? What about strippers who have had patrons go to far, who haven’t had such a good experience and who might welcome tightening restrictions? Maybe they’ve been reporting on this law for awhile… but I, not following the Ohio legislature or the plight of strippers, could have used some more context.

That’s my two cents.

QOTD: Everything we do affects other people

Monday, June 4th, 2007

“Everything we do affects other people.”
— Luke Ford

Some things to tie you over

Sunday, June 3rd, 2007

This past week has been interesting. Stressful at times, several times, and awesome at others. And I can hardly believe it was a single week at all, as the amount of “stuff” packed in makes it seem like a month at least.

The biggest of the “stuff” is that I moved into a new apartment in Lafayette, about a half mile away from the J&C. (I had been living with students in West Lafayette since I moved here. That was a bad idea on my part.) That’s where I’ve been most of the week, first desparately trying to find an apartment I didn’t hate — I am apparently very picky because every place I looked at had some deal-breaker — and then packing and actually moving my stuff across the river. It probably would have been easier to, uh, take a day off work or enlist the help of friends, but I decided to take the project on myself, waking up early and staying up until the wee hours of the morning.

Though I now need more furniture because my apartment is huge and most of what furniture I did have stayed in Akron because I was subleasing a room down here, I am moved. I never again have to come home from work after 10 hours to a house full of strangers playing beer pong or wake up at 3 a.m. to sirens because my roommate or her friend had to be rushed to the hospital with alcohol poisoning. The sad thing is, both of those situations happened on more than one occasion and are merely the tip of the iceberg, hence my eagerness to find an apartment far away from Purdue.

On the downside, I haven’t yet set up Internet at my new place. So, uh, I’m at Panera right now taking advantage of the free wi-fi and trying to remember where I saved that map I made of free wi-fi in Greater Lafayette region.

Since I don’t access the blog from work, updates will probably be infrequent this week until everything is squared away at home. ‘Til then, here’s a sampling of things I’m looking at, reading or thinking about:

  • 10 obvious things about the future of newspapers you need to get through your head, especially this point:

    Okay, here comes the big one: THE GLASS IS HALF FULL. There is excellent work being done in the new world of online journalism and it’s being done at newspapers like the Washington Post and the Lawrence Journal-World and the San Jose Mercury News and the St. Petersburg Times and the Bakersfield Californian and all sorts of papers of all sizes. You don’t need millions of dollars or HD cameras or years of training to make it happen; all you need is the right frame of mind. So let’s stop writing and groaning about how things used to be different, and let’s start building our own piece of the new world of newspapers brick by brick, story by story.

  • A confusing time to be a young journalist… An interesting read, including or perhaps especially the comments at the end. This reflection from Kathleen Nye Flynn, 25, reporter, Los Angeles Downtown News struck a chord with me:

    “I have wanted to be a newspaper journalist since I was 12 — my goal has never wavered — and ever since then I have worked for some sort of publication. Now I am a reporter for a local paper, paying my dues quietly while others my age have zoomed to the top. It’s worth it, I tell myself, because, after all, I’m in this for the long haul.

    “Now, they tell me, it looks like there won’t be a long haul — newspapers are dying, and the LA Times, every little local journalist’s paper to aspire to, is shedding all the reporters that I have waited for so long to work with. Well, hell. If only I could tell my 12-year-old self to go into advertising, right?

    “But I hold out hope — I have to. Try to tell me that journalism is a thing of the past, that now bloggers do it for free and I’ll never make enough money to support my future family, that if I do end up working for a big-boy paper one day I’ll just be spewing corporate jargon a la Fox News — and I won’t believe you.

    “I can’t. Call me blind or stupid, but I can’t give up on something that I have so much invested in. At 12-years-old, I wanted to be a journalist so I could dig up the facts, spread the word and effect some sort of change. So, as long as there are facts to dig, people to tell, and words to use, I have a purpose.

    “Whether or not I will have a paycheck, I’ll have to see.”

  • My Times — So I’m not sure if it’ll work for any of you, but I received an e-mail Friday telling me to personalize my My Times homepage. This is basically like the Google personalized homepage only not. It’s like, all the news that’s fit to print and then much of everything else I need to know from the mainstream media (including WSJ, BBC, Washington Post, etc. headlines.) Seriously, I’m not sure how I lucked into being one of the beta testers. I figured the service had gone “live” when I got my e-mail, but apparently not everybody’s feeling the love from the NYTimes just yet. Sign up to be notified when it launches, because apparently, that’s how I got included in this round of beta testing.
  • One Last Summer — The J&C’s newest community blogger. A senior who just graduated from one of the county high school’s and is headed to Notre Dame this fall where she plans to major in … journalism. She’ll spend the last summer at home blogging about the time between high school and college. Her first post talks about the ridiculous number of graduation parties she attended — 23 last weekend! and more this and the next few — and getting her wisdom teeth pulled. This is a great example of having someone in the community tell their story as a snapshot of a time in life. I’m looking forward to reading it this summer.
  • Multimedia Reporter — Speaking of new blogs, this is a few weeks old and has been in my RSS reader since I first stumbled on it. I admire any reporter/editor/journalist/anyone willing to take a leap of faith and build their wings on the way down, as it were. Ron Sylvester is not only building his wings as a long-time newspaper reporting jumping into new media, he’s letting us all in on the ride.